Feed stores will be getting their chicks in the next couple of months, and if you’re pondering the addition of a backyard flock this year (we hope you are!), it’s time to start thinking about a coop. There’s still lots of time–this year’s chicks won’t be ready to go outside by themselves until May or June–but it doesn’t hurt to start gathering plans, ideas, and materials. So today: A soup-to-nuts look at our year-old coop.
In our last house, we re-purposed a corner of the separate garage for a coop, but this time we started from scratch. Having lost hens to both raccoons and feral ferrets (!), we incorporated lessons from harsh experience into our coop design. Still, I was thinking “Chicken coop: we’ll hammer four walls together, add a roof, cut a little door, fence it up good, and Voila!” Then my dad called–my dad Jerry, the stone mason, from the “If You’re Gonna Build It, Build It Right” school. He said, “I need a little project. You wouldn’t mind if I helped work on your chicken coop, would you?” I know he secretly feared what we’d build without him. With Jerry’s expertise, we ended up with a coop that is as beautiful as it is functional.
For four hens, we chose to build a 6×3′ raised coop, with an enclosed area beneath, set inside a larger, fully-enclosed aviary. As you can see, the coop is raised on cedar posts set in concrete footing, and framed they way you would build any small shed. It has a sloped roof with an overhang on all four sides. We used a hodgepodge of leftover, gifted, used, and new materials, and spent a few hundred dollars. The wood for the walls is half inch plywood, which happens to have a stamped pattern on it (it is not T-111, which isn’t sturdy enough for wet Seattle weather). At the end of this post there’s a downloadable plan with all the dimensions of our coop.
Our coop design has two doors: a big “human door” in the front for easy access, egg gathering, ventilation, and cleaning, and a chicken door on the left side with a ramp.
We leave both of them open during the day, and although the chickens can jump in and out of the human door, they usually prefer to use the chicken door. So funny! Of course all gates and doors latch tightly.
Though the chickens have a larger run, underneath the coop we built a cage Tom calls “Chicken Guantanamo,” where they can be outdoors and still be fully protected if we need to leave them for an extended period. We completely enclosed the area beneath the coop with 1/2 inch metal hardware cloth, buried 10 inches into the ground. We also buried a “floor” of hardware cloth several inches under ground, and sewed it with wire to the buried fence to prevent burrowing by rats/raccoons. Chicken wire is not acceptable, as raccoons can reach right through it and grab a chicken. We made a discovery: the hardware store carries sturdy arched nails called “poultry net staples” for attaching the hardware cloth.
The cage below the coop is accessed from the outside through a small gate which, when open, allows the chickens into the covered area for shade, and protection from the rain. But more importantly, we designed it so that if we need to leave overnight, we open a trapdoor on the floor of the coop, and give the chickens full access to the coop and the outdoor cage beneath it while keeping them safe. Most days we don’t use the trap door at all–we just let them out in the yard during the day, and close them up in the coop at night. But the trap door to “Guantanamo” works great when we need it, and we’ve been grateful for this setup many times.
The roof has a ten inch overhang, and even during this year’s wet, blustery Seattle winter, not a drop of water got in the coop. My friend JoJo gave me a bundle of cedar shakes he’d picked up somewhere years ago–they have a tattered label, and are clear, old growth western red cedar, milled locally in 1964! I wouldn’t buy old growth cedar today (even if I could afford it), but was grateful to put these to use. Jerry covered the roof with roofing cloth before nailing down the shakes.
Around the coop is a fully-enclosed chicken yard. For this we used “hog wire,” which is both stronger, and looks nicer than chicken wire. The raccoons in our neighborhood are bold, and wander about in broad daylight–it was absolutely necessary to have the overhead protection. Some urban chicken farmers just create a little closed-in pen, covered at waist-height, but we love to hang out with the chickens, and wanted to be comfortable standing in their yard. We like to let the girls range freely in our backyard when supervised, but most of the time we keep them in their run, safe from neighborhood predators, dogs, and away from the garden.
Some chicken keepers leave the water and food out during the day. I like to keep it in the coop, so I don’t have to move it inside at night. You can make your own feeder/waterers, but these metal ones from the feed store are hard to beat. Hanging the food keeps it free from litter, and discourages the chickens from sitting on top of it (and pooping there…). But the water sloshes from a chain, so I just put it up on some bricks to keep it out of the coop litter (currently we’re using coffee chaff).
One rookie coop building error is the construction of a nest box for every single chicken. We promise you– as we discovered ourselves with out first coop–that no matter how many nest boxes you have, the chickens will all lay their eggs in one nest! Why??? We don’t know, but it’s true…One nest box suffices for four hens. The wooden crates that you can find in dumpsters outside of vegetable stands make perfect nest boxes. I nailed a board across the bottom to keep the straw in. There are also natural branches inside the coop for nocturnal roosting.
The very best part of our coop? Our daughter Claire’s old wooden crate, in the aviary. She sits there with the chickens for an hour at a time, petting them when they jump in her lap. Sometimes she brings a book. She says she feels just like Fern in Charlotte’s Web. We leave an old raincoat by the backdoor, and her boots, and she cuddles the chickens in all weather.
Here’s a simple plan for our coop (PDF), ready for your own modifications (***Please note: the dimensions of the floor are 3 x 6′, not 4 x 6′ as in my sketch***). The photos from this post, and more images of our coop and foul endeavors, are in Tom’s Flickr account (at a higher resolution and under a Creative Commons license – feel free to re-use them).
Obviously we love our coop and it brought us pleasure to build it, though it did take the better part of five days, and the support of my experienced and indefatigable dad (Thanks, Jerry!). But don’t feel daunted! The web is full of great examples of simple coops made inexpensively from found materials (as well as coops much fancier than ours!). Or find inspiration, as we did, in the terrific book, Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. Better still, have a look at what your chicken keeping neighbors are up to. Chickens are great for local community building, and everyone loves to talk about their own chickens and coop. If you hear clucking on a neighborhood walk, see if the chicken farmer is around and say “hi.” And if you have questions or ideas that worked wonderfully in your own coop, we’d love to hear them!
Here are previous chicken-related posts on The Tangled Nest, including this one on caring for chicks in a homemade biddy box. There are tons of resources for urban chicken farmers on the web, including this great page by Seattle Tilth.
December, 2012: This coop plan is now available as an amazing infographic by Timothy Sanders.
You may also like the post The Tangled Nest Urban Chicken Roundup, an overview of my best chicken-related posts.